We need a radically different model of leadership in public life - Gavin Matthews

We face an unprecedented crisis of public leadership. That is a phrase I have heard repeated by people from all sides of contemporary politics and it’s no surprise that we see growing levels of cynicism towards our leaders and public institutions. There are few more grubby things to observe than the way in which the love of power affects the human heart and grimly permits us to sacrifice truth, integrity, friendship and character for its ends.

Gavin Matthews, Solas
Gavin Matthews, Solas

This problem is not unique to our time or place. The famous truism, “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” first coined in that form by the historian Lord Acton in 1887, could equally have been written in ancient Rome. And its grim reality is the reason that we celebrate democracy and aspire to have non-political judges, so that the intoxicating and corrupting burden of power is not laid too heavily on any one individual.

The clamour for power seems to affect all aspects of life, and all tiers of government. What some parts of the EU mean when they talk of “ever closer union”, parallels those in Westminster who said, “take back control”, with those in Edinburgh who want more power for Holyrood. The common thread seems to be that if only “we” had more power – things would be better. We each instinctively over-trust ourselves with power, underestimating our own capacity for wrongdoing; while overly fearing the motives of others.

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We need a radically different model of leadership in public life to both teach and exemplify something better. As we celebrate pluralism and diversity, we recognise that one of the things that plural societies can struggle with is forging a common narrative to hold us together across our differences. In our context, Christianity was once the overarching story by which the dramas of the moment were judged. That is no longer the case, but yet the Christian story still has many vital insights to bring to this discussion.

Permit me to highlight the most significant: central to Christian faith is the idea that Jesus Christ was entitled to all glory and power; but willingly gave it up to reach us. Jesus said that he “did not come to be served, but to serve, and give my life as a ransom for many”. The enduring significance of Jesus is not because of the power or wealth he accumulated, but because of the power he gave away for the good of others; namely submitting his life on the cross as a payment for human wickedness, securing the promise of our forgiveness and eternal life with God. For Jesus, power was not something to be grasped, but shed; and as he told his first followers: “The greatest among you must be your servant”.

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Now, I am not for one moment naively suggesting that those who claim to follow Christ have always embodied this. Sadly the Church has had its share of egotists, and charlatans. For every William Wilberforce, we’ve had a Trump. . .

The point is we need a leader who both explicates and embodies these deeply counter-cultural principles, who can challenge our faults and inspire us to better. We need someone who can subvert our very conception of greatness by enthroning self-sacrificial love as the highest ideal. We need a role-model who stands above the rotten corruption of modern public life and can both show and demonstrate a better way – and who can forgive us when we discover the corruption in ourselves. Perhaps it’s time to reconsider the life and teaching of Jesus. The Gospel of Matthew in the New Testament is an ideal place to start, to encounter the man whose life and words we need to hear afresh today.

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Gavin Matthews, Solas

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